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Sagittarius Rising (1936)

de Cecil Lewis

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Sent to France with the Royal Flying Corps at just 17, and later a member of the famous 56 Squadron, Cecil Lewis was an illustrious and passionate fighter pilot of World War I, described by Bernard Shaw in 1935 as "a thinker, a master of words, and a bit of a poet." In this vivid and spirited account the author evocatively sets his love of the skies and flying against his bitter experience of the horrors of war, as we follow his progress from France and the battlefields of the Somme, to his pioneering defense of London against deadly nighttime raids.… (més)
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Sent to France with the Royal Flying Corps at just 17, and later a member of the famous 56 Squadron, Cecil Lewis was an illustrious and passionate fighter pilot of World War I, described by Bernard Shaw in 1935 as "a thinker, a master of words, and a bit of a poet." In this vivid and spirited account the author evocatively sets his love of the skies and flying against his bitter experience of the horrors of war, as we follow his progress from France and the battlefields of the Somme, to his pioneering defense of London against deadly nighttime raids.
Cecil Lewis distinguished himself in action with eight victories throughout WWI and was awarded the Military Cross. After the war he became a flying instructor in China and later achieved fame as one of the founders of the BBC and as a respected playwright, winning an Oscar for the screenplay of Pygmalian. He died in 1997.
  MasseyLibrary | Oct 11, 2020 |
Excellent WW1 flying memoir. Good prose, interesting personal insights and enough of the technical aspects of flying and air warfare above a horrific ground war to maintain interest. Change out the equipment and it would easily emulate the WW2 Battle of Britain as fought by similar young men with a cavalier attitude and aristocratic sangfroid. ( )
  jamespurcell | Nov 8, 2016 |
Cecil Lewis's SAGITTARIUS RISING probably does deserve its classic status. It is, after al, a memoir of the role of aviation in the First World War. Aviators at that time were true pioneers, and most of them were brave - or foolish - daredevils to boot, tempting fate every time they took to the sky in their fragile machines.

I read the book mainly because this new edition from Penguin Classics (2014) features an introduction by one of my favorite authors, Samuel Hynes. Hynes's FLIGHTS OF PASSAGE is perhaps one of the best WWII memoirs about flying. And, more recently, Hynes wrote an excellent and very personal sort of history of WWI aviators, THE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR. I loved both of those books.

Unfortunately, although I loved the Introduction, the Lewis book fell a bit flat for me as a memoir. The style seemed overly ornate and the language dated - to be expected, I suppose, but Lewis's many stories and anecdotes of the flying exploits by him and his fellow pilots too quickly became redundant, to the point that I began skimming long portions of the narrative. Yes, he talks of his training, mates lost in fiery crashes, stupid mistakes made by himself and others, of his growing sense of mortality, and, sometimes, burnout and dread which got him posted temporarily back to England from France. He describes his many sorties over the long days of the Somme, near misses and mechanical failures, getting lost and forced landings - all those things are in there. He also gives a glimpse into his post-war days as a civilian pilot instructor in China - mostly a fruitless enterprise.

Lewis wrote his book twenty years after the war, when he was not yet forty, but felt like his life was half over. (In fact he lived to be 99.) He makes a number of comments about war that are still true in these days of global war and terrorist strikes everywhere, and the accompanying political rants so ubiquitous in today's news.

"People who cannot learn from their mistakes are damned ... What have we learned from ours? We are, collectively, the most evil and destructive of human creatures. We back up our greeds and jealousies with religion and patriotism ... No one knows where to put their faith, so they believe nothing. Moral and social standards are confused ... The fear of feeling the ground slipping from under their feet drives whole nations back into mediaeval despotism ... But emulating the ostrich, though it may bring relief for a space, does not solve the problem. It leads straight back to self-immolation on the altar of outworn patriotism, that is, to barbarism ..."

Lewis made these observations in 1936. Hmm ... Not much has changed in eighty years, has it?

He contemplated higher things too, remembering "the cynical wartime prayer: 'O God - if there is a God, save my soul - if I have a soul.'" But Lewis believed he had a soul - "a drop of the Life Force" - although he wasn't sure about heaven and displayed a dark sense of humor.

"If, in heaven, my grosser qualities were to be purged away, leaving me all 'good,' so much the worse. The devil was the pepper in my curry; remove it, and how flat the dish would taste."

And, speaking of his 'grosser qualities,' Lewis is disappointingly circumspect about his 'jolly good times' when he was on home leave, although there are intimations of a girl friend or two. Perhaps it's his 'gentlemen don't tell tales' training. Nevertheless, there is not very much of his personal life here, aside from some time spent with this philosopher father, who enlisted in the army, refusing to take a commission.

Bottom line: SAGITTARIUS RISING is a worthy, if not terribly interesting book. I would recommend it to readers interested in the history of aviation and warfare. (But I still think that the Hynes books are much better.)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Jul 4, 2016 |
Autobiography of a WWI British pilot. He tends to wax poetical and when he describes flying it makes you long to take flight and soar through the clouds free of everything.

Some good history about the war from the flying perspective. He lived thru some thick action and once returned from a long weekend away to find most of his fellow airmen killed. He was one of the lucky few who survived. He joined at 17 and I think served for four years.

He spends a little bit of time after the main of the book talking about the time he spent in China after the war trying to help them learn to fly. He describes the way non-Chinese society segregated themselves and often looked down on the Chinese. He found it difficult to teach them, in a large part due to the language barrier. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
I gave this book 5 stars more for the manner in which it was written, than for the "what" that was written. Later in the book I saw that the author claims to some extent to be a poet. No wonder his prose is so engaging! Well written. I have read many books on the air war in WWI. This one stands out because the author deals in many cases with his feelings and perceptions (as well as those of others), not merely the personal experiences of combat and loss. My favorite part of the book is at the end. Here he covers his experiences in China after the war (1920-1921), where is contracted as an instructor for the start-up of the Chinese Air Force. His view of the Chinese culture is most interesting and heart felt. He recognizes the beginning of the shift away from the traditional culture toward that of acceptance of the Western culture. Well done. ( )
  douboy50 | Apr 12, 2012 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Lewis, Cecilautor primaritotes les edicionsconfirmat
Arthur, MaxIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Binder, KlausÜbersetzerautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Nevinson, C.R.W.Il·lustradorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Shaw, George BernardCol·laboradorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat

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Sent to France with the Royal Flying Corps at just 17, and later a member of the famous 56 Squadron, Cecil Lewis was an illustrious and passionate fighter pilot of World War I, described by Bernard Shaw in 1935 as "a thinker, a master of words, and a bit of a poet." In this vivid and spirited account the author evocatively sets his love of the skies and flying against his bitter experience of the horrors of war, as we follow his progress from France and the battlefields of the Somme, to his pioneering defense of London against deadly nighttime raids.

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